As Purim is upon us, some Jews have already begun planning — at least in thought — the course of their celebrations. However, while they are caught up the festivities will they remember whose stories they will be praising?
Although Jews in the Persian Empire were once liberated from Haman’s plot to destroy them, today Iranian Jews live and pray in silence within the grip of a totalitarian regime. In fact one which — as we all know — has famously proclaimed its firm opposition to Israel. Even so, they bravely continue to practice their religion.
The Jewish-Iranian community is one of the oldest still-surviving diaspora societies. The country with the highest population of Jews in the Middle East, except for Israel of course, is Iran — a fact which is surprisingly not known to many. Perhaps it is even more remarkable that even less people know that it is the home of the Tomb of Esther — which is still tended by Jews to this day.
Shuls in Iran are not marked. There are no Stars of David, no Hebrew- no particular symbols of Judaism are used. In fact most of them look so unremarkable from the outside that once one enters them he or she would be astounded by the perfect representations of Jewish artistry displayed on the walls. Lavish and beautiful designs of Persian-Judaic culture — the remnants of a diaspora community unlike ever seen before.
Yet, they are not just hidden from the eyes of the many non-Jews in Iran, but from the international community as well. It isn’t just that it is extremely difficult for the West to get past Iran’s despotic control of the flow of media in and out of country, but the community itself is under pressure to try and remain silent amidst Islamic fundamentalism.
The fact that they remain hidden seems to be an unspoken rule between the community and the state. Although the Iranian government claims there is a representative of the Jewish community in their legislative assembly, two immediate questions come to mind. How effective is a representative within a “parliamentary” structure under a totalitarian regime? And second: If he does have any agency, how far would it go within the so claimed Iranian “democratic” process? Same question, worded differently? Yes.
Although most Jews in Israel and around the world will be celebrating Purim in the streets, from house to house, most Iranian Jews will be forced to keep their festivities contained. How could one not, when surrounded by such a blatant lack of freedom? The truth is that if they do get dressed up it will be behind closed doors — not so different from the ways shuls in Tehran have no presence amidst the huge metropolitan conglomerate.
However, Iran’s Jews have not always been so “silent”. Prior to the Iranian Revolution relations between Jews and non-Jews were positive and fostered towards increasing acceptance by Shah Pahlavi. However, with the advent of Islamic extremism many fled for Israel, while few remained behind to create a life under the new order which was not so welcoming. Today there are around 20 to 25 thousand left — most of which live in Tehran.
There might not be an immediate violent threat to the community, but the truth is that they do not live in the democratic freedom that Jews enjoy in Israel or the United States. Although many are orthodox in their practice, they cannot visibly wear kippahs or grow payot, let alone be able to enjoy themselves as they have since their ancestors were delivered from Haman’s tyranny.
So why don’t they leave? The most complex issue that has come to define Jewish existence is the sheer complexity of diaspora communities. Why are there still Jews in Germany, Russia and Poland after what happened in the Second World War? There are ties to those places that are not woven to the ground but to the people. Just as how once Jews in Germany saw themselves a German Jews and some still do, and how today many Jews in the U.S see themselves as American Jews- the same quality can be found in Persian Jewry.
Whatever the case, the point remains that although once freed by Cyrus the Great from Babylonian captivity, and saved by Esther from their destruction, Iranian Jews today will have to stamp and shout quietly, and attentively when Haman’s name is mentioned. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies that has come to define their identities.
Once the Purim bash begins, and as children run the streets, it is perhaps appropriate to give a thought to the fellow Jews of Iran, who do not have the freedoms to take part in the international joy — which I am sure their Jewish soul yearns for.